Posts Tagged ‘ agnotology ’

The Internet: Fundamentally transforming our brains

((As an aside, watching the Oscars and Wall-E just won best animated feature.))

The Guardian | The digital revolution risks changing the way we think

Jackie Ashley

…is the new way of social interaction actually changing the brains, and indeed the minds of a generation, and if so, what might that mean?

… We know from neuroscience that the brain constantly changes, physically, depending on what it perceives and how the body acts. So Greenfield suggests that the world of Facebook is changing millions of people, most of them young.

Greenfield argues that a shorter attention span, a disregard for consequences in a virtual everything-is-reversible world ((I bet sirdavid wishes it really was an everything-is-reversible world… sadly, not always the case)), and most importantly, a lack of empathy may be among the negative changes. She quotes a teacher who told her of a change in the ability of her pupils to understand others. She points out that irony, metaphor and sympathy can all be lost in cyberspace. ((I would disagree with this point; while maybe some of the nuances of the verbal medium are lost, everything that can be communicated textually can be communicated in cyberspace. So are we saying that metaphor and irony are harder to express in text? Oh, well sure, naturally that makes sense. What?))

There is also the question of identity. An intern working for Greenfield told her: “In a world where private thoughts and feelings are posted on the internet for all to see, it’s hard to see where ourselves finish and the outside world begins.” Where is the long-term narrative in a life reduced to a never-ending stream of bite-sized thoughts ((each roughly 140 characters in length))? Even clever writers end up “twittering” a burble of banalities.

… Digital culture has brought us a wider conversational democracy (good), which suffers from short attention span and is too self-referential (less good). There is no answer to this. The new world is here to stay. It is part of who we are becoming and how our minds are adapting. If you opt out of it, you cut yourself off…

On the broader points (the fact that digital communication is transforming the way we think, that the culture of the internet– in the main– promotes a shorter attention span and a penchant for self-reference) I agree with Ashley. The article is rather circular, though, presenting the argument that the most effective communication is physical and face-to-face, talking about how with the current events taking place globally we need more honest “IRL” debate, without coming right out and saying the Internet is seriously compromising the chance of this (I leave to you whether that’s actually the case or not– I don’t think so). While Ashley compliments Susan Greenfield for raising the long-term effects of digital social media, she never really gives those long-term effects any real consideration; seriously, what will happen in a world that can only communicate in 140-character blurbs when we need to solve such important problems as global warming, national security, and energy use?

But then, I’m not totally convinced that the digital revolution has the downside Ashley and Greenfield are suggesting. Short attention span, sure, but what about the thousands of bloggers out there that daily share their opinions– often carefully thought-out and meticulous– in cyberspace? What about video-bloggers on youtube, and podcasters on iTunes? …I think the big issue at stake, the most important part of us that is affected by the use of social media, is the one of identity. It’s too early to tell, I think, whether we’re looking at something greatly beneficial or mostly detrimental, but it’s important to recognize (and I think Ashley agrees with this) that whatever the changes are, we are changing the way we think by using this technology.

Anyway. To end as I began:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UblUO0LjPUg

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Agnotology – You mean ignorance isn’t bliss?

W I R E D | Clive Thompson on How More Info Leads to Less Knowledge

Normally, we expect society to progress, amassing deeper scientific understanding and basic facts every year. Knowledge only increases, right?

Robert Proctor doesn’t think so. A historian of science at Stanford, Proctor points out that when it comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases.

He has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is “the study of culturally constructed ignorance.”

I had flashbacks of Neil Postman as I read this article. Arguably a different yet related concept is information-glut (or, perhaps more commonly, “information overload”): the notion that after a certain point the more information accumulates, the more chaos, uncertainty, and ignorance (rather than order, clarity, and knowledge) there is (Technopoly). As I recall, Postman posited this as something inevitable rather than driven by an actual desire to sow disinformation. He uses a story from Plato’s Phaedrus about the discovery of writing to illustrate his point. The god Theuth presents writing to the Egyptian King Thamus and describes how, by teaching it to his people, it would be “a sure receipt for memory and wisdom”. Thamus is less than enthused. He says to the god:

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (371-372)

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